Wednesday January 30, 2019
Movie Review: Something to Sing About (1937)
In “Lady Killer” (1933), James Cagney plays a NY gangster who flees to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. In “Something to Sing About,” Cagney plays a NY bandleader, Terry Rooney, who is sent to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. It was a theme.
It was certainly a theme for Cagney and other stars of the era. Most of them arrived from somewhere else and quickly became famous in a way that no one prior to the 20th century had ever been famous: worldwide. Clark Gable assumed the bubble was going to burst, and Cagney felt similar. He was a vaudeville hoofer who snagged a lead in a Broadway play, Penny Arcade, which was optioned by Al Jolson, which led to the call.
“I came out on a three-week guarantee,” he writes in his autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”
For a time, “Something to Sing About” is a send-up of the Hollywood factory similar to what “Singin’ in the Rain” would do 15 years later: experts on diction, clothing and hairline descend on our hapless hero to “improve” him. At the same time, he's getting the brush-off from the studio. The studio mogul, B.O. Regan (Gene Lockhart, the judge in “Miracle on 34th Street”), is having contract trouble with his exotic Russian star, Steffie Hajos (Mona Barrie), and he doesn't want the same thing to happen to Rooney. So even when the rushes come back and Rooney is dynamite, Regan orders everyone to tell him he’s no good. There's a bit of a Jack Warner vibe to all this.
There are other Cagney parallels. On the last day of shooting, for a big fight scene, the stuntmen decide to really sock Rooney. Cf., “Public Enemy” director Wild Bill Wellman telling Donald Cook, playing Cagney’s brother, to really punch him.
Another possible parallel: After wrapping the film, and ready to chuck the whole crazy movie business, Rooney and his girl, Rita (newcomer Evelyn Daw), take a cruise to the South Seas. When they return they’re amazed to discover he’s a star; he’s mobbed for autographs outside a San Francisco movie theater. According to IMDb, something similar happened to Cagney:
After several supporting roles, Cagney filmed his breakout movie, The Public Enemy (1931), in early 1931. When filming was completed, Cagney returned to New York, thinking the movie would be nothing special. A few months later he was surprised to see a long line of moviegoers outside a New York theater where “The Public Enemy” was being shown. Cagney had become a star.
I say this is a “possible” parallel because I can’t find corroboration. Cagney’s autobiography makes it sound like Warners worked him nonstop—he made five movies in 1931, three in ’32, and five again in ’33. Where’s the time to let Cagney walk the streets of New York for months on end? And while he was under contract?
Anyway, because the studio badmouths Rooney, who becomes a star, I’d assumed the conflict for the rest of the movie would be trying to resign him when Rooney has all the leverage. Nope. He's ready to sign right away. The conflict is he’s now married, which the studio doesn’t want, so Rita has to pretend she’s merely his secretary. Why he doesn’t bargain better, or just walk, I don’t know. But that’s the plot for the second half: Rita chafing under the role, and Rooney having to win her back with a big song in New York.
It’s not much of a movie, and the version I saw on Amazon Prime was a bit blurry because it’s been in the public domain for a while. Grand National, the studio Cagney made it for, went out of business in 1939. It actually went out of business because of this movie. It was their shot and getting out of “poverty row” so they put a lot of money into it, but it didn’t do well at the box office. In a movie about elevating a fictional studio, Cagney helped sink a real one.
But there is something of value here.
First: I was intrigued that William Frawley was in the picture and wondered what he looked like 15 years before “I Love Lucy” began. Turns out: the exact same.
I was also intrigued that Philip Ahn was in it. I’d seen him on “Kung Fu” in the ’70s and recently (for me) in “The Shadow” movie serial from 1940. Here, he plays Ito, Rooney’s Hollywood valet, who speaks embarrassing pidgin English: “Honorable Master” and “humble servant” and the like. While bowing.
Guess what? It’s an act. Not Ahn’s, Ito’s.
At one point, Rooney is depressed, because he thinks his acting is awful, and he says something about how only Ito will talk to him and all he’ll say is “Yes, sir, please.” So Ito drops the act, speaking impeccable English, and Rooney does a double take.
Ito: My former employers felt that the accent lent a certain dignity...
Rooney: Pull up a chair. Sit down. I want to hear about this. Tell me about yourself.
Ito: I came here aspiring to be an actor.
Rooney: Uh huh. And they couldn’t mold you, huh?
Ito: They didn’t even try.
Every once in a while, in an old Hollywood movie, you’ll see a character who doesn’t play into the racist stereotypes of the day. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that actually points out the racist stereotypes of the day—certainly not in the ’30s. Even our hero doesn’t get it. Rooney thinks he has something in common with Ito—“molding” by the studio—but Ito lets him know that’s not the case with the heartbreaking line “They didn’t even try.” What’s a burden to Rooney is the opportunity Ito never got.
Indeed, when you pull back, it’s worse. We find out Rooney's real name is “Thaddeus McGillicuddy,“ but he changed it to succeed. To succeed, he has to become more like the mass. For Ito to succeed, he has to be less like the mass; he has to adapt a pidgin dialect and bow and scrape. America is telling Rooney “Be like us,” but it’s telling Ito, “Be the other thing we like; the thing not like us. Then we’ll let you eat.”
They didn’t even try. It says so much, and it’s nothing to sing about.